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DOJ’s reasoning on bill ‘indefensible’

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Department of Justice’s reasons for opposing legislation designed to strengthen the federal effort against human trafficking are “indefensible,” a Southern Baptist public policy specialist says.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has been working since last year to defeat a bill intended to provide it with more weapons to combat global and domestic trafficking, which includes sexual and forced labor slavery.

The House of Representatives still approved the DOJ-opposed legislation in a 405-2 vote in December, but that measure has gotten nowhere in the Senate. Instead, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported to the full chamber July 31 a version that slavery foes consider much weaker.

Two reasons DOJ has provided for fighting the House proposal -– known as the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, H.R. 3887 — are states’ rights and a lack of funding to implement the measure, anti-trafficking advocates say.

States should be permitted “as much self-governance as possible,” Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) said in response to DOJ’s arguments. “But sometimes a situation rises to a level that requires a federal response. It seems to me, and to most people I know, that sex trafficking is one of those situations,” he said.

“When people are held against their will, threatened with bodily injury if they leave and forced to engage in sexual activity for the financial benefit of their captors, the federal government should do all it can to end that practice,” said Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research. “Slavery is not a state’s right. Our country settled that issue nearly 150 years ago. Now, our nation is faced with another form of slavery, and, once again, it is obvious that the states are incapable of ending it.”

DOJ’s argument about a “lack of resources is equally indefensible,” he told Baptist Press. “The Justice Department wouldn’t have to prosecute every pimp to help turn the tide in this battle. It could select only the most horrifying situations to prosecute, similar to the way it deals with all other crime in the country. But its involvement would have a profound effect on all traffickers.

“The price we were willing to pay, and ultimately did pay, to end the institution of slavery in our nation in the 19th Century was much higher than the price that would be paid today,” Duke said Aug. 8. “Surely, the lives of enslaved women and girls are worth the price.”

DOJ counters the criticism from the network of anti-trafficking organizations by contending the Senate bill, S. 3061, “provides new authorities that will enhance our efforts and allow us to further protect victims and bring offenders to justice.”

The DOJ asserts that the House version would cause DOJ’s successful anti-trafficking effort to be redirected toward focusing on adult prostitution, a crime state and local officials already are combating. Such a focus would hurt DOJ’s battle against the exploitation of children, especially child pornography, the DOJ says.

Another reason DOJ says it fought the House bill is because it would provide federal crime victims’ funds to prostitutes, thereby diverting resources from trafficking victims and undermining potential state and local prosecutions of prostitutes.

John Miller, director from 2002 to 2006 of the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, finds it “hard to believe” the reasons given by DOJ for opposing the House measure.

“A culture clash, I suspect, is the real reason for the Justice Department’s opposition,” Miller wrote in a July 11 commentary for The New York Times. “In this case, the feminist, religious and secular groups that help sex-trafficking survivors are on one side. And on the other are the department’s lawyers (most of them male), the Erotic Service Providers Union and the American Civil Liberties Union –- this side believes that vast numbers of women engage in prostitution as a ‘profession,’ by choice.

“Those who work with trafficking victims and those who have interviewed survivors believe that most prostitutes are poor, young, abused, harassed, raped, beaten and under the control of pimps against their will,” he said.

“Put me on the side of those who have worked with the victims,” Miller wrote. “I have talked with survivors all over the world, including the United States, and I share the view that these women and girls –- the average age of entry into prostitution is 14 –- are not participating in the ‘oldest profession’ but in the oldest form of abuse. They are slaves.”

About 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year, according to the Department of State’s trafficking office. This does not include millions of victims who are trafficked within their own national borders, the office says. About 80 percent of the transnational victims are females, and as much as 50 percent are minors.

As many as 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, according to the office.

Human trafficking includes forced commercial and domestic labor, as well as coercive recruitment of children as soldiers, but the data show the majority of those trafficked across international borders are victims of sexual exploitation.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.